ChiArts Has A Union. How Much Should Students Know About It?

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Students and teachers at ChiArts walk out of school in support of the teachers' union. Photograph by Stephanie Galicia.

by Katie Malate

On Fridays, the the halls of the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) are lined with red.

Students see the buttons pinned onto lanyards, the red shirts worn with cardigans and khaki pants, and the blocky white text with one clear statement: “UNION FOR SCHOLAR ARTISTS.” These are sported by the members of the ChiArts Teachers’ Union.

But what does that mean? Many students have expressed that they have a pretty well-formed idea of what the union stands for, but the fine details can feel fuzzy.

That’s not to say that the students here are intentionally missing the purpose ,though; it’s our lack of information that holds all of us back from knowing one of the biggest presences in our school. There’s been confusion that’s followed the teacher’s union since its birth last year — confusion that has left students asking questions.

So to begin: What is the Teacher’s Union?

“The Union represents teachers on the issues of wages, hours and working conditions,” said to Executive Director of ChiArts, Jose Ochoa in an email. “Under Illinois and US labor laws employees may organize and select a representative or organization to represent their interests on these issues.”

I also spoke to a teacher in the union, who asked to be left anonymous in this story.

“The teachers were able to have a union last year because we voted and won by a majority. The union was created because the teachers at ChiArts want to have a contract at this school,” the teacher said.

“We [the teachers in the union] all love working at ChiArts, and we want to make ChiArts a place where we can spend our careers. But the rate that ChiArts is losing its teachers affects students, so we just want to make the school a better place,” the same teacher added.

This central idea is even written on the backs of their shirts.

There @teachers_critical_dialogue Instagram account appears to be run by one or more ChiArts teachers, and contains screenshots of thoughts that suggest an anti-union sentiment.

One post — that was ultimately deleted — reads:

“It is unethical and dishonest, [REDACTED], these are KIDS. Children, who you are bringing into this political melee in order to serve your own political agenda. It is making me sick to my stomach.”

There are a lot of legal issues surrounding the union that make it sometimes difficult to get objective information about it. Promoting the union on school grounds is squarely against the rules. But this hasn’t stopped the tension from leaking out — even when no one is saying anything.

All this brings up another question: Is it better that the students remain in the dark about the union? I sought out my fellow ChiArts students in order to find answers.

“Students should be informed about what is happening in our school environment. We go here and we all deserve to know, so we can make our own decisions,” said Nick Joy, a senior in the creative writer department.

Senior Kate Moorhouse of the dancing department said that she doesn’t think that it’s likely for students to be brainwashed or indoctrinated.

“It affects our teachers and ultimately i’ts our decision about where we stand on the issue. I haven’t had a teacher tell me to believe in the union,” Moorehouse said.

“It’s interesting how teachers in classrooms are always saying that we’re young adults and have the right to make decisions, but as soon as it’s a conflict of interest for them we’re children being used as pawns,” said Zebadiah Truty, a senior visual artist.

On March 11, at 4:30 p.m., ChiArts had its first union walkout.

While many students walked out alongside their teachers in solidarity, many also chose to stay inside and occasionally looked out to the crowd from classroom windows, making individual decisions about whether or not to rally.

Students both inside and outside classrooms engaged in meaningful discussions about class sizes, wages, and the department of diverse learning. This was all without the influence of teachers hovering or contributing.

This question of whether transparency causes tensions remains. Either way, ChiArts students have proven that they are able to digest and process the environment around them and make of it what they will.

What information we will be allowed to process in the future, however, is still up in the air.

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